An Interview with Mark Padmore

By · Photography © Marco Borggreve · Date 1/25/2018

I had tea with the tenor Mark Padmore one recent afternoon, backstage at the Berlin Philharmonic as it rained and hailed outside. He wore a black sweater over a light gray dress shirt and a sleek bronze bracelet, and had just finished a rehearsal with the violinist Pekka Kuusisto and members of the Karajan Academy, for young orchestral musicians.Padmore praised Kuusisto for his energy and “abandon” more than once during the interview. At the concert, though, I thought Padmore stole the show with the unfamiliar, surrealist, and refined “Paroles tissées” by Witold Lutosławski, for tenor and chamber orchestra, to words by Jean-François Chabrun.

VAN: You released a new “Winterreise” recording with the pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout on January 19. Is it the kind of piece you need to be mature to tackle, like the Bach Cello Suites?

Mark Padmore: I often think it’s a little bit like King Lear. The thing is, we tend to know “Winterreise” through baritones, who often sound more mature. But I sing it in the keys that Schubert originally wrote—he wrote it for a tenor voice.

How does that change the character of the work?

For example, there are three songs that would all essentially be in the same key if you do the transposition: “Der Lindenbaum,” “Wasserflut,” and “Auf dem Flusse.” But “Wasserflut” was originally written in F# minor. Having a different key in the middle, rather than three in the same key, changes the nature of those three songs.

Then, the very end, you’ve got two songs together which are essentially in A. But “Der Leiermann” was originally thought of in B minor. It’s a great key for the song, the same as “Der Doppelgänger” at the end of “Schwanengesang,” and the “Unfinished” Symphony.

Schubert, “Winterreise,” VI. Wasserflut; Mark Padmore (Tenor), Kristian Bezuidenhout (Piano)

What makes B minor a good key for that song?

It has this sense of something otherworldly, but frightening. It’s like there’s something [Schubert] is really afraid to live with, when it’s sung in that key.

To me, the song sounds frightening and otherworldly in A minor too. Do you have perfect pitch?

I don’t, but I hear the step up. The previous song, “Die Nebensonnen,” is very much in A Major. The step up takes it into a strange place.

When you were recording “Winterreise,” which song was the hardest to get right?

The first song is always the most difficult: to get the sense of storytelling and the journey being undertaken, to capture the audience immediately, is hard. The piece lasts 75 minutes, longer than most symphonies. It really does require a mutual concentration from audience and performers. And it’s not a vocal display piece—it’s much more an existential exercise in getting people to think about loneliness and the outsider.

Schubert, “Winterreise,” I. Gute Nacht; Mark Padmore (Tenor), Kristian Bezuidenhout (Piano)

When you’re singing such a long piece, can you ever afford to give a certain moment all you’ve got? Or do you have to conserve your energy?

I don’t think you should have run out of voice at the end of it by any means. It is long, but I could sing it twice in a day.

When I was listening to your recording of Robert Schumann’s cycle “Dichterliebe,” the climactic “Ich grolle nicht” seemed somehow more restrained than other versions I know.

That’s partly because it was a tenor singing it. Baritones often do transpositions of different amounts in “Dichterliebe,” which really messes up the key relationships. Nearly always, they’ll sing “Ich grolle nicht” in the original key. That means that they can do a baritone top A, which is just different to a tenor top A. There is more weight to it, inevitably.

“Ich grolle nicht” is very interesting because if you look at the score, the top notes are actually ossias. It’s not like he says, “If you can’t manage the top note, sing a lower note.” Instead it’s, “If you really feel like you have to sing the top note, then you can.” But the original shape of it is the piano doing the top A, not the voice. [The pianist] Graham Johnson writes about that very well in his notes for the cycle, where he says he’d like to hear a tenor not do the top notes.

Do you sing the top ossia notes?

I do. You feel very shortchanged as a singer otherwise.

Do you see sexual repression as a kind of consistent theme in the music you sing, from “Winterreise” to your upcoming “Death in Venice”?

Certainly in Britten you see that. The subtext in his works is always very interesting: he gives you a lot in the orchestra writing, which is sometimes missed by people who read the libretti literally.

And with Schubert’s later songs, you often have the voice within the piano writing, as a sort of tenor line, rather than it being the main vocal line, accompanied by the piano. The piano often takes hold of the whole music, and the tenor is singing within it. There’s a companionableness about that which is something I don’t experience in other music. It often manifests itself by singing in thirds and sixths; you’re in harmony. There are great lines like that in a song called “Im Freien,” which speaks of male bonding, affection, and great friendship, but it’s not sexual.

The thing that most speaks to me about Schubert is that he is the most open composer of anyone. When you get to know his music, you are allowed into his life in a way that I don’t think you get with anybody else.

When you’re singing music that intimate, where do you look in the audience?

I love eye contact. It’s one of the things about lieder recitals. One of my great watchwords is attention, or attentiveness. You want the audience to listen attentively, not passively. Not: “Show me what you can do.”

When a concert is very expensive, in a Salzburg Festival-type situation, you have the problem of an audience that feels entitled and privileged. They’re going to have the best singer in the world come and entertain them; they’re going to say whether he’s in good form. But lieder recitals, I find, work better the more casual and intimate they are. Doing the “Winterreise” in the main hall of the Berlin Philharmonie seems ridiculous to me. The only reason to do it is to make a lot of money, but that is totally counter to the spirit of the piece. I’ve done songs to 30-40 people, and it was brilliant.

You wrote an article last year in The Guardian about how recordings can water down our relationship with music. Do you think we should avoid listening to pieces like the St. John Passion unless we’re willing to be completely concentrated?

I actually edited out [from that article] that I’d like there to be an absolute moratorium on recording the St. John Passion. Some people did find my anti-recording thing a little bit…recording is incredibly useful, like the broadcasting of opera and theater to places where they don’t have it. People do get an access to something they might not otherwise have. But there is a cost: the liveness of “live” gets lost.

I went into a church a couple of years ago, near Coventry, to escape from the heat. They were playing a kind of baroque spiritual CD, whatever. And “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew passion came on, and I had to leave. What was it supposed to do to me?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxZGbW8kK34

Benjamin Britten, “Abraham and Isaac,” Op. 51, Canticle II.; Iestyn Davies (Countertenor), Mark Padmore (Tenor), Julius Drake (Piano) 

To what extent can you inhabit the character of a song cycle? Do you have to disassociate from the emotions to keep your vocal technique intact?

I do think that vocal technique sometimes gets to be so good that it feels impervious. I hear that sometimes with baritones: they have a wonderful consistent sound, but it lacks a vulnerability. I probably go too far in the other direction, sometimes my singing is a bit vulnerable technically. But it’s partly because I don’t want to cover up the thought and the ideas with technique. And sometimes a super-sure technical expertise does do that.

It’s a difficult balance, because there can be weakness that then becomes distracting or annoying to certain listeners. But I feel a little bit judged by the critics, who sometimes don’t find my singing good enough. Whereas I think people who aren’t as into that connoisseurship can actually get more what I’m doing, because it’s direct and unmediated.

I think that variety is really good. One thing to add about our “Winterreise” is that we’re using an old piano. In the concert hall these days you hear a Steinway, maybe a Fazioli, Bösendörfer, or Yamaha. But they all look the same and aim to sound similar. It’s like you can only ever drive a black Mercedes. It has to be that. And that gives no room for driving an old Volkswagen or a beaten-up vintage car. But music should be made in all of those worlds.

I read that you worked with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants early on. It often seems to me like the best musicians performing these days have some kind of early music background.

We’re in an interesting moment historically. Early music was a subversive, iconoclastic movement. For example, I was involved in Roger Norrington’s first recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, singing in the chorus. I remember the excitement of it: the sheer weirdness of the sounds that were being produced, and the fact that it didn’t sound luxurious.

Back then, they often made quite ugly sounds, and it wasn’t necessarily the best technique. Now we’ve moved on to a different era where the period playing has become of a very high standard. And there’s a slight danger that becoming a new orthodoxy in its own way, and losing again the spark of imagination. We’ve got to make young musicians realize that they’ve got to be daring, not that they’ve got to be good. We must never be complacent. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.